The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Edward Hirsch’s “Leningrad (1941-1943)” describes in vivid and sometimes hallucinatory images the horror of the German blockade of that city during World War II. The blockade lasted 526 days, but the actual assault on the city continued much longer. Hirsch tells his story in seven sections of six three-line stanzas each, unrhymed, with almost no caesuras or end-stopped lines. Sharon Olds’s poem “Leningrad Cemetery, Winter 1941” is a moving companion piece, though much shorter, on the same subject.

The poem opens with a cacophony of animal sounds in section 1, as of zoo creatures gone mad from bombardment, such a nightmare that “we knew it had begun in earnest.” The chaos of animal terror—of “wild dogs/ Howling like dirges,” “three mad sables roving through the streets,” and “polar bears wailing”—climaxes in a chilling stanza that describes “the sky speaking/ German,” “the night wearing a steel helmet,/ And the moon slowly turning into a swastika.” These menacing images establish the historical reality and foreshadow the unspeakable events immediately following.

Harrison Salisbury’s The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad (1969) tells the whole story in almost unbearable detail, devoting one chapter, “The Blood-Red Clouds,” to the destruction of the Badayev food warehouses, and although Hirsch does not name them it is obvious that his section 2 dramatizes the Badayev event as he speaks of the...

(The entire section is 563 words.)